Category Archives: Published articles

Eat your art out: Artists develop a taste for food (BY MATILDA BATTERSBY, THE INDEPENDENT, Thursday 19 August 2010)

The aesthetic significance of a plate of food is usually considered only for the few seconds it takes to bite into it. In fact, when taste and not style is of the essence, a bowl of grey-coloured slop could be just as satisfactory as a tower of carefully constructed haute cuisine, so long as said slop is well seasoned. In the age of culinary pretentiousness (ie now) with chefs like Heston Blumenthal producing food that has been tweaked, preened and garnished with the artistry of, well, an artist, it’s unsurprising that some of it should have found its way into an art gallery.

Feast for the eyes: Antony Gormley's bread based 'Bed' Tate Liverpool
Feast for the eyes: Antony Gormley’s bread based ‘Bed’
Tate Liverpool

Next weekend, a huge multi-level garden of exotic and colourful flowers, with visible roots dripping with soil and insects, and velvety blooms covered in flies and bugs, all made out of icing sugar, cake and marzipan, will form the centre piece at Cake Britain – the world’s first entirely edible art exhibition.

The show at London’s Future Gallery (which is appropriately sponsored Tate & Lyle Sugar), celebrates a nascent British art scene that uses jelly, cake, candy or other fare instead of paint or canvas. Dreamt up by a group who call themselves the Mad Artists Tea Party, and curated by cupcake-maker Lily Vanilli (also responsible for the edible garden), everything produced by artists and confectioners will be devoured within 72 hours of the exhibition opening.

It is not the first time food has been embraced by the art world. A scale model of an Algerian city made out of couscous by Kadia Attia was bought by Tate Modern in May. While wheat-coated semolina granules might be an unusual choice for a permanent installation (particularly as it goes flat as it perishes), Attia is only one of many creatives beginning to straddle the boundary between art and catering.

The “Jellymongers” aka Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, are famous for their elaborate jelly sculptures – notably a bright translucent copy of St Paul’s Cathedral that would have impressed its architect Christopher Wren. They’ve taken ideas from the 18th century about performance dining, with very original results. The pair recently made Occult Jam at the Barbican Gallery in July, as part of the Surreal House exhibition. They stewed jams using weird ingredients such as wood from Nelson’s ship the Victory and a speck of Princess Diana’s hair. For Cake Britain, the duo are planning “a doughnut-centric performance” with ideas from kitsch digital artist Jason Freeny.

Artist Cosimo Cavallaro's "Absolute Pressed Ham"
Artist Cosimo Cavallaro’s “Absolute Pressed Ham”

Gloucestershire-based “food obsessed” artist, and maker of the world’s first chocolate room, Prudence Emma Staite, is another big British name involved in Cake Britain. During the election, she produced accurate pizza portraits of the party leaders out of dough, basil, mozzarella and pasata. She’s paired up with artist George Morton-Clark for Cake Britain, although details of their “marzipan and icing-sugar” creation are being kept strictly under wraps. Morton-Clark, whose paintings are rather morbid but use cartoonish colours (ideal for cupcakes), discussed a range of ideas with Staite. “She never came back to me to say, ‘Oh no, you can’t make that in cake’,” he says. “In fact, she thought of ways to make it bigger and better.”

There is a pair of liquorice men’s brogues by Andy Yoder in Saatchi’s collection. And Antony Gormley’s Bed made from bread is currently on display at Tate Liverpool. Food is used by many artists because it is a useful and playful medium with which to represent something else. Choosing liquorice to make a pair of shoes, as in Yoder’s case, seems wonderfully appropriate as the dark, shiny confection is a stylised approximation of shoe leather. But Yoder, Attia and Gormley would most likely be appalled if someone viewing their work was to take a bite out of it. There is a stark dichotomy between artists who use food because it is an interesting material, and those for whom the eating of the art is simply the fulfilment of its purpose.

Staite, for example, wouldn’t be satisfied if people didn’t eat her work, which is designed to tantalise the taste buds as well as the eyes. “I really like seeing people eating the art,” she says. “It’s like a final journey. I often spend months making something and then it’s put on display and chomped up. Eating Obama’s face made out of cheese is just so much more interesting than having a normal block of cheddar.”

She’s trying to combat, what she calls the “ready meal culture,” by making bold statements with food to get people to consider its consumption more carefully. “The art is about putting the magic back into eating. So that when someone sees a life-size chocolate sofa they’ll think ‘wow, that’s amazing’. So that next time they eat chocolate, instead of just gorging on it and throwing away the wrapper, they’ll take a bit more time to think about their food.”

Bompas agrees that food art should be safe to consume, but says there is a fine line to tread when playing with the aesthetics of the edible as sometimes it can just be really bad taste (no pun intended) mucking about with food. He says: “Where do you find most food that looks like other stuff? At the low end: chocolate willies for hen parties, teddy-bear-shaped ham at Tesco etc. That’s why the element of skill is so important. If you get it wrong then it becomes really disgusting.”

Bompas & Parr at Alcoholic Architecture Greta Ilieva
Bompas & Parr at Alcoholic Architecture
Greta Ilieva

But playing with sensorial norms, and the added dimensions of taste and smell, can provide endless possibilities. Vanilli, who along with Alexander Turvey, is responsible for the edible garden at Cake Britain, recognises this. “The garden is going to be a little bit macabre, with beautiful flowers covered with insects and flies that you can eat. The idea being to play with perceptions, creating things that look repulsive but taste delicious,” she says. There is an element of performance and synaesthesia with such an approach. It aims to trick the viewer into a cerebral sense that what they’re looking at is inedible; meanwhile, their mouths are made to water by the sweet smells it gives off.

The fact that if the art goes uneaten it will go mouldy, lose its shape, attract flies, and end up as a stinking mass of nothing, is part of its draw. The intransigence is vital because if one didn’t eat it and enjoy it then all its beauty would be lost anyway – or the food (like Gormley’s bread, which was soaked in paraffin) will need to be treated with something to fix its appearance in time, making it inedible.

Eating art is satisfactory because it uses taste, touch and smell as well as being a visual feast. Eighteenth-century exponent of haute cuisine, Antoine “King of Chefs” Carême, famously remarked: “There are five fine arts – sculpture, painting, poetry, music and architecture – and the confectioner is the only artist to have mastered four of the five.” Just add to that a willingness to watch your mastery chewed up and swallowed by the ravenous hordes, and you have all the ingredients necessary for a food artist. Perhaps something of Blumenthal’s will make it into the Tate Modern next.

Parts of Canadian artist Cosimo Cavallaro's controversial sculptures are on display in his exhibition "Chocolate Saints...Sweet Jesus"
Parts of Canadian artist Cosimo Cavallaro’s controversial sculptures are on display in his exhibition “Chocolate Saints…Sweet Jesus”

Cake Britain, Future Gallery, London WC2 (020 3301 4727) 27 to 29 August


Visual Art – Food as the Medium, Past and Present ( July 29, 2013 by Emily-Jane Hills Orford)

All living creatures consume nutrients in order to survive. All humans eat food; in fact, most of us even enjoy it. Historically, food is a part of our biological makeup. It defines who we are, our cultural background (historically and in the contemporary sense) and our physical makeup. Consequently, it stands to reason that food should (and does) appear in the visual arts throughout the centuries. After all, art is about life and so is food. But food as medium?

Why not? Just about everything else appears as artistic medium. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) used a urinal for a work he called Fountain. Found art, collages using objects from real life, has defined the complex fragility, as well as the wastefulness of humanity. Why just represent something when you can use the actual object as the medium, to enhance the message?

Visual Art – The Medium

“The medium is the message,” wrote Canadian philosopher of communication theory and art/literary theorist, Marshall McLuhan in 1964. This famous quote has been used repeatedly since the 1960s to define the theorist’s conception of a work of art: literary, visual, theatrical – anything created by humans. When food becomes the medium in the visual arts, what is the message? Art relays some sort of message, doesn’t it?

Is the artist commenting on the the contemporary human diet, or ridiculing mass-production of processed foods? Is the artist providing us with social commentary on human desecration of the natural world, using drama and stagecraft to create a lasting impression of the destructive side of humanity? Perhaps the artist simply admires food, as both subject and medium.

Nineteenth – Century Realism

Stark realism? Certainly food as the message can be blunt, sometimes brutally so. But “stark realism” was an art history label long before twentieth and twenty-first century artists started using ‘found’ and real objects as the medium. Gustave Courbet’s (1819-1877) work was sometimes defined as stark realism.

As Jonathon Jones wrote in an article for the Guardian, Courbet’s “stark realist masterpieces foretold the alienation of the modern age” (“The Master of Menace”). Certainly, his still life images of food, like his Still Life with Apples, Pear, and Pomegranates (c1871/2), provide a vivid re-creation of all the blemishes and realism of the subject itself.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of the nineteenth century favoured still life imagery in their works. Édouard Manet (1832-1883) preferred still life’s as subjects for his paintings. The artist once said that “a painter can express all that he wants with fruit or flowers.” 

Manet’s choice of still life reflects his view on the fragility of life and how brief it is. Manet viewed life with joy and excitement, and he reflected this in his still life paintings as well as other subjects. After all, food, the very essence of a still life painting, is metaphorically what we see and feel about life. It is more than what we enjoy in the culinary exercise of preparing and eating.

Manet’s Still Life With Fish (c1864/1868) depicts the raw essence of food awaiting preparation. The fish lies on the table, limp, its life depleted. Both eyes and mouth gape open, and the tail is turned upwards in an awkward death stance. Manet is telling the viewer that all life is fragile; all life is brief. In the end, we all lie with a vacant look, our mouths gaping.

Manet's "Still Life with Fish" (1864) at the Art Institute of Chicago depicts life's raw fragility.

Historical Metaphor or Political Metaphor?

Metaphor of life, or politics of life? Food as an artistic medium can represent both and much more. Food speaks about who we are, when we live, and how we live our lives. Yes, there is definitely politics in food. The artist chooses food as arts medium, as its message, for obvious reasons.

Still life images have often depicted recently killed animals – carcasses, bloodied, sometimes dripping blood over the surface on which they were posed. Paolo Uccello’s (1397-1475) The Hunt in the Forest (c1470) shows the brutality of the masses as throngs of hunters descend on their single prey.

Paolo Uccello's "The Hunt in the Forest" (c1470) in the Ashmolean Museium, depicts the aggressive brutality of man on the hunt for helpless prey.

Courbet also painted the hunting image. The Quarry (1857) is one of his many hunt-related paintings. Courbet loved to hunt and loved to paint images of his hunt. Often, as in The Quarry, he featured himself as the hunter – a blatant message of his power over his prey, of humanity’s power over other life forms. It’s almost pompous in the artist’s crude, cruel, imagery.

As Fred Leeman writes in “The Painter as Prey” (DBNL), Courbet’s hunting scenes “are full of pathos, showing vulnerable, wild animals entirely at the mercy of their attackers. … in The Quarry, the slaughtered roe deer is shown hanging by its hind leg from a tree while, under the watchful eye of the hunter, the hounds wait to be thrown the entrails…”

The artist’s message: the brutality of the kill, for one, but also the wasteful side of the hunt, which metaphorically and categorically documents humanity’s wastefulness. The carcass would be left on the artist’s table for days, its composition not to be disrupted until the painting was complete. Consequently, the dead animal would serve no further purpose than to be an object in a painting.

Israel Hershberg's image of a single cow's tongue on a bare table in an empty space speaks volumes of life's brutality and fragility.

Contemporary Artists and Food as Art

The carcass as still life is a medium with a message in much the same way as twenty-first-century artists have used rotting meat dumped on a gallery floor as a message to convey the wasteful aspects of our society. Similarly, artists have created real life objects using raw meat, as in theMeat After Meat Joy exhibition at the Daneyal Mahmood Gallery in New York in 2008, where meat artists like Betty Hirst used raw meat and lard to create dishes, shoes, and even the flag of the United States of America.

Exhibition curator Heide Hatry, quoted in the Meat Art Gallery Showexhibition review, stated that meat artwork challenges both the artist and the viewer “to investigate the paradoxical relationship meat has to the body.”

Food as medium? Or food as message? What about culinary artists? A true chef doesn’t just create a masterpiece to tempt the palette: his/her display of the masterpiece is, in itself, a creative exercise. The food is the medium. The message is self-indulgence – pure pleasure to the tastebuds.

But as art? As Mark Federman writes in “What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message?,” we “know the nature and characteristics of anything we conceive or create (medium) by virtue of the changes – often unnoticed and non-obvious changes – that they effect (message).”

Israel Hershberg (born 1948) placed a cow’s tongue on a table, positioned it in an empty space, painted the image, and gave it the title Cow’s Tongue #74. The message? For Hershberg, his art defines himself. He is quoted in an interview with Larry Groff (Painting Perceptions), supporting

“the idea that a work of art should be a time capsule in which a painter deposits his most cherished, formative painterly desires – in the Joycean sense, of being forged in the smithy of one’s soul – the direct, unmediated experiences and communions we have had with great works of art.” What is he “depositing” in images such as Cow’s Tongue #74?

Food, be it subject matter or the medium itself, provides the viewer with a message that is culturally affected by the time period in which it was created as well as the time period in which it is viewed. It makes us wonder what the art historian will think hundreds of years from now when she or he looks at images of rotting carcasses, actual rotting carcasses, like Jan Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for An Albino Anorectic,that have been used as the medium and not just the image.


Federman, Mark. What is the Meaning of The Meaning is the Message? (2004).  Accessed July 25, 2013.

Gauvreau, Donovan. The Long History of Food in Art. (1999). Empty Easel. Accessed June 26, 2013

Groff, Larry. Interview with Israel Hershberg. (February 1, 2011) Painting Perceptions. Accessed July 26, 2013.

Jones, Jonathon. The Master of Menace. (Oct 30, 2007). The Guardian. Accessed July 25, 2013.

Leeman, Fred. The Painter as Prey: Courbet’s Hanging Roe Deer in the Museum of Mesdag.(1999). Stichting Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. Accessed July 25, 2013.

Liedtke, Walter. Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600-1800(2003). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed June 28, 2013.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (1964). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Meat Art Gallery Show: ‘Meat After Meat Joy’ [Food Art]. (2008) Eat Me Daily. Accessed July 26. 2013.

Meat-dress Sculptor Wins Governor General’s Art Award. (Feb 28, 2012). CBC News. Accessed June 30, 2013.

Smith, Roberta. Art Review; Food: Subject, Symbol, Metaphor. (Sept 16, 1994). The New York Times. Accessed June 26, 2013